A Critique of “Building a Bridge” by James Martin, SJ

A friend asked me to read Building a Bridge, How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity by Fr. James Martin, SJ and let him know what I think about it.

Here are my thoughts.

Can One Be Gay and Catholic?

Fr. Martin makes it clear in his book that being gay is not contrary to living a Catholic life. That’s all well and good, if by being gay Fr. Martin means simply possessing a homosexual orientation. There is nothing sinful about possessing a homosexual orientation. Fr. Martin challenges the notion that a homosexual orientation represents a disordered sexuality and wants the Church to discard that language. I don’t see how the Church can do that and be faithful to what God has revealed to us about the gift of sexual love, for it’s clear in Divine Revelation that sexual love is intended as an expression of unity between a man and a woman in a lifelong, exclusive relationship that is open to children.

If by being gay, Fr. Martin means a person who possesses a homosexual orientation and acts on that sexually, then repents of this and desires to be reconciled to the Church through the sacrament of Reconciliation, then that also is nothing contrary to living a Catholic life. We all sin, as Fr. Martin points out a number of times. One might expect a homosexual person who is tempted to sexual sin to sin in a way consistent with his or her sexual orientation, just as one would expect the same of a person who is heterosexual. Just as those with a heterosexual orientation who fall into sexual sins of a heterosexual nature are encouraged to repent and be reconciled with the Church through the sacraments, so the same is encouraged of those with a homosexual orientation.

But, if Fr. Martin means by being gay those who are active in and committed to a gay lifestyle of homosexual sexual activity and even same-sex marriage, then he is mistaken. Such is contrary to a Catholic life. Even still, just as the Church encourages heterosexual persons who are active in and committed to a life of heterosexual sexual activity outside the bond of sacramental marriage to participate in the life of the Church to the degree they are able, so also those who are homosexual.

The problem is that Fr. Martin fails to clarify what he means by being gay, or what he means by being a member of the LGBT community. One suspects he means a bit of all of the above, though there’s reason to think that his hope is that the Church will eventually come to see the third definition as completely consistent with living a Catholic life. More on why I think so below.

Here are my main problems with Fr. Martin’s book and his approach to building a bridge between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community.

A Two-Way Bridge

Fr. Martin claims he wants to build a “two-way” bridge. By that, he means a bridge that challenges the Church to treat with respect, compassion, and sensitivity members of the LGBT community, and that challenges the LGBT community to treat with respect the Church. Fr. Martin does point out ways that LGBT members can treat the Church with greater respect, compassion, and sensitivity, though in all of these examples what he means by “the Church” are the clergy, especially the bishops.

In reality, though, both in tone and substance, in Fr. Martin’s mind the great work of building a bridge belongs to the Church, especially the bishops. In Fr. Martin’s world, LGBT people are victims of the Church, and it is the Church that needs to reach out to and accommodate LGBT Catholics. No one should pretend that LGBT Catholics have had an easy ride in the Church. But, it would be helpful if Fr. Martin at least acknowledged that a good bit of the tension between the Church and LGBT Catholics has been rooted in the insistence of LGBT Catholics, and non-Catholics, that the Church do something the Church cannot do, and that is give her blessing to the gay lifestyle and same-sex marriage and declare that homosexual sexual activity is consistent with God’s will for sexual love. That’s not going to happen, and there’s no use pretending that it will. Neither is there any use in pretending that such is not a hope, or even a demand, of many members of the LGBT community. Not only does Fr. Martin fail to acknowledge this, he never mentions it at all.

One point that Fr. Martin makes with which I agree is that the Church is unjust in the practice of firing LGBT Catholics who have entered into same-sex marriages so long as Catholic institutions continue to keep in hire Catholics who have divorced and re-married without the benefit of an annulment, or Catholics who are living together outside of marriage, or Catholics who use birth control. This inconsistency is unjust, but the answer is not to then keep in hire LGBT Catholics who have entered into same-sex marriages. Rather, it is to expect of all Catholics employed by the Church or in leadership positions within the Church to live according to the marriage laws of the Church. The Church put herself in a position of weakening her moral witness when she stopped expecting this of heterosexual Catholics. She needs to get back on track on this matter. Consider, for instance, the notion of a Catholic taking a public position in an organization such as the Ku Klux Klan, or a Catholic who owns and operates an abortion clinic. Surely no pastor would allow such a Catholic to serve in a position of hire or leadership in a parish or Catholic school. Yet, on what grounds can such a Catholic be denied such a position in the Church, so long as Catholic institutions allow Catholics who flaunt or reject the Church’s moral teaching on marriage? If we’re not going to draw a line at requiring a genuinely Catholic witness when it comes to Catholic marriage and sexual morality, on what grounds do we draw the line anywhere?

An exception, however, is for Catholics couples who are using birth control. Why? Because this is not a public manifestation of a lifestyle inconsistent with Church teaching. No one wants to be and no one need be the “birth control police.” There’s a difference that the Church has always recognized between private and public sin, between private and public failings to live according to the teachings of the Church in terms of how the Church pastors one in the public square. That difference should continue to be respected. But, same-sex marriage, divorce and re-marriage, and cohabitation are all public acts. As such, those who engage in them bear a heavier burden when it comes to making a public witness for the Church. On the other hand, should a Catholic in a position of hire or leadership take a public stand against the Church’s teaching on contraception, he or she would be subject to the same expectations of public witness.

Jesus Meets Us Where We Are

In his reflection on Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, Fr. Martin points out that Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to promise to turn his life around before He invited Himself to dinner at the sinful tax collector’s home. Fr. Martin uses this as an example of Jesus’ emphasis on community first, then conversion. Jesus meets us where we are. He accepts us where we are. Only then does He challenge us to conversion. Fr. Martin wants us to know that this is Pope Francis’ emphasis, as well.

Which is wonderful. Except that in Fr. Martin’s book, at least, he never gets to the conversion part. It seems that Fr. Martin is all about welcoming people into community, and only about welcoming people into community. He offers nothing, absolutely nothing, in his book about how the Church might effectively challenge LGBT Catholics to live faithfully and chastely the life of the Gospel. In His encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus did inspire in the little man a conversion of heart and a change in the priorities of His life. Fr. Martin seems to think that the Church welcoming LGBT Catholics into community is enough. I hope that’s not enough. I hope it isn’t enough for me, any more than I hope it’s not enough for LGBT Catholics. I rely on the promise that Jesus meets me where I am, but my hope is in His promise that He will not leave me there. For Jesus meets me in my sin, but He leads me by grace to salvation.

God Loves Us

The love of God for all is a constant theme in Fr. Martin’s book. This is a good thing. But, just as in his emphasis on community before conversion, Fr. Martin never gets to the second part of the equation, which is that God loves us so much that He sent His Son to redeem us. For in Fr. Martin’s book, it seems that God’s love is enough to redeem us even in spite of ourselves, or perhaps even that there is no need for redemption. There is no mention, for instance, of our loving God. There is no talk of our embracing the grace God offers for the sake of our salvation. The message he seems to teach is that because God loves us nothing is required of us. The fact that God loves us is enough. We need do nothing, except accept that God loves us.

Of course, God loves everyone, but this is not to say that hell is empty. St. Paul tells us to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), and, “Do not receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1). While God is love and God’s love is for all, it is necessary to embrace God’s grace and commit our lives to conforming our will to His. Even this is according to grace. In some mysterious way, it is God’s grace acting in us that empowers us to embrace His grace while at the same time being completely free in doing so.

What is not true is that God’s love for us means a certainty of our salvation, or of our living in accordance with His will. Fr. Martin fails to make this point. In that sense, he creates false hopes for those who might come to believe that God’s love for them means the choices they’ve made are blessed by God, and they are certain of salvation.

New Ways Ministry

In his book, Fr. Martin praises New Ways Ministry. In fact, Building a Bridge, represents an expanded text of a speech Fr. Martin gave to New Ways Ministry on receiving their Building Bridges Award. A review of Fr. Martin’s book by Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, graces the cover. Fr. Martin is clear that he sees New Ways Ministry as a positive force in the Church on behalf of LGBT Catholics.

The Church sees New Ways Ministry differently.

The late Cardinal Francis George, OMI, when he was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued the following statement on New Ways Ministry, dated February 12, 2010:

“New Ways Ministry is an organization based in Mount Rainier, Maryland, that describes itself as ‘a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics and reconciliation within the larger Christian and civil communities.’ From the time of the organization’s founding in 1977, serious questions have been raised about the group’s adherence to Church teaching on homosexuality. In 1984, the archbishop of Washington [in whose archdiocese New Ways Ministry was founded] denied New Ways Ministry any official authorization or approval of its activities. At that time, he forbade the two co-founders, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Fr. Robert Nugent, to continue their activities in the Archdiocese of Washington. In the same year, Sr. Gramick and Fr. Nugent were ordered by their superiors to separate themselves from New Ways Ministry. Although they resigned from leadership posts, they continued their involvement in New Ways Ministry activities until 1999, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that because of errors and ambiguities in the approach of Sr. Gramick and Fr. Nugent they are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons. …

“New Ways Ministry has recently criticized efforts by the Church to defend the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and has urged Catholics to support electoral initiatives to establish same-sex ‘marriage.’ No one should be misled by the claim that New Ways Ministry provides an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and an authentic Catholic pastoral practice. Their claim to be Catholic only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination. Accordingly, I wish to make it clear that, like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of Church teaching, New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.”

From the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 31, 1999:

“Given the failure of repeated attempts of the Church’s legitimate authorities to resolve the problems presented by the writings and pastoral activities of the two authors [that is: Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founders of New Ways Ministry], the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is obliged to declare for the good of the Catholic faithful that the positions advanced by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of homosexual inclination are doctrinally unacceptable because they do not faithfully convey the clear and constant teaching of the Catholic Church in this area. Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have often stated that they seek, in keeping with the Church’s teaching, to treat homosexual persons ‘with respect, compassion and sensitivity’. However, the promotion of errors and ambiguities is not consistent with a Christian attitude of true respect and compassion: persons who are struggling with homosexuality no less than any others have the right to receive the authentic teaching of the Church from those who minister to them. The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church. For these reasons, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS, are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and are ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes.”

These two condemnations still stand. Sr. Jeannine Gramick, in her continued work with homosexuals and with New Ways Ministry, is in direct disobedience with the Church. New Ways Ministry continues to promote gay sex as a legitimate expression of God’s will for sexual love and continues to promote same-sex marriage.

It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that Fr. Martin would point to New Ways Ministry as an example of effective Catholic pastoral ministry toward homosexuals. Fr. Martin’s praise of and admiration for New Ways Ministry is why I believe he hopes for a time when the Church will give her blessing to homosexual sexual activity and even to same-sex marriage. It’s even more unfortunate that some bishops, such as retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, MI and Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, KY, would participate in the activities of New Ways Ministry. These men continue to cause confusion among Catholic people, especially among LGBT Catholics, and harm the community of the Church.

It’s for these failings that I can’t recommend Fr. Martin’s book, Building a Bridge, and why I think it ultimately fails in the noble goal of encouraging Catholics to greater respect, compassion, and sensitivity to homosexuals and of encouraging LGBT Catholics, and us all, to live more faithfully the Gospel of Christ.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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